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75 killed as protests escalate in Syria

Syrian security forces fired bullets and tear gas Friday at tens of thousands of protesters across the country, killing at least 75 people in the bloodiest day of the monthlong uprising and signaling that the authoritarian regime was prepared to turn more ruthless to put down the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

The dead included a 70-year-old man and two boys ages 7 and 10, Amnesty International said. In the southern town of Izraa, a man carried the body of a young boy, whose hair was matted with blood from a gaping wound on his head, as another child wept and shouted, "My brother!" Footage of the scene appeared on the movement's main Facebook page.

In other towns, protesters scattered for cover from sniper bullets, then dragged corpses through the streets. Mobile phone images showed the bodies lined up on the floor inside buildings.

The protests, most launched from mosques after Friday's noon Muslim prayers, erupted in towns and cities across the country, including in at least two suburbs of Damascus, the capital.

The death toll was likely to rise, as were fears of an explosion of violence today as relatives bury their dead in funerals that in the past have turned into new protests. Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria's National Organization for Human Rights, said 20 people were missing.

Friday's toll was double that of April 8, the previous deadliest day of the uprising, when 37 were killed around the country. The heavier crackdown followed Assad's warning a week ago that any further unrest would be considered "sabotage" after he made the gesture of lifting long-hated emergency laws, a step he ratified Thursday.

The regime clearly indicated it was prepared to escalate an already bloody response, with nearly 300 dead in more than five weeks. Previously, Assad has mixed the crackdown with gestures of reform in a failed attempt to deflate the protests.

The bloodshed so far only has invigorated protesters, whose demands have snowballed from modest reforms to the downfall of the 40-year Assad family dynasty. Each Friday, growing numbers of people in multiple cities have taken to the streets despite the near certainty that they would come under swift attack from security forces and shadowy pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha."

"Bullets started flying over our heads like heavy rain," said one witness in Izraa, where police opened fire on protesters marching in front of the mayor's office. The town is located in Daraa, the southern province where the uprising kicked off in mid-March.

In Washington, President Obama condemned the latest use of force by Syria against anti-government demonstrators and said the regime's "outrageous" use of violence against the protesters must "end now."

In a statement, Obama said Syria's moves to repeal a decades-old emergency law and allow peaceful demonstrations were not serious in light of Friday's events.

He called on Assad to change course and obey the will of his people by giving them what they seek -- freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and the ability to choose their leaders.

Tens of thousands marched Friday in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Hajar Aswad, the central cities of Hama and Homs, Latakia and Banias on the coast, the northern cities of Raqqa and Idlib, the northeastern Kurdish region, and in Daraa, witnesses said.

The outpouring was certainly one of the most robust to date, but whether the turnout was larger than those a week ago was difficult to gauge. The protests were dispersed so quickly and violently Friday, and many gatherings appeared to have been broken up before the masses hit the streets.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where protests are now the norm after prayers every Friday, demonstrations erupted anew in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and even Egypt, where tens of thousands of Muslims in a southern province gathered to demand the ouster of a Coptic Christian governor.

Yemen, especially, was notable both for the opposition's sustained ability to mobilize huge crowds for the 10th straight Friday and for the lack of violence that's marred previous rallies against the three-decade rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Serious, prolonged unrest in Syria almost inevitably would hurt Lebanon's Hezbollah and weaken Iran's influence in the region. But what would come next if a power vacuum develops in Syria is not at all clear.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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